Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Middle of Nowhere (Australia: Deniliquin/Wanganella: 11-14 July 2007, Written 14 July 2007)

I arrived at Tullamarine, the airport in Melbourne, and Susan was waiting there. It was just like yesterday that we had seen each other. We hopped in the car for the 4 hour drive to Deniliquin. It was a beautiful drive, flat rural landscape with green everywhere, heaps of galahs and rosellas on the side of the road (these are beautiful native birds, the first being grey and pink, the latter a rainbow of red, yellow, blue, green, and purple) – it was refreshing to see so much green. Despite the decade long drought that most of Australia has been experiencing, there had been some rainfall earlier this month that had helped make things green, at least for awhile.

We got to Deniliquin, population 8000, and met Sarah at her house. After chatting and catching up we had dinner and then we did the half hour drive to Wanganella, population 30. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been anywhere with population 30 – it was lovely. The night sky was so bright, and we didn’t pass any cars for the whole trip. I knew that the Wallaces owned a farm, called North Run, but had no concept of how large it was. 14,000 acres, she said, very casually. And the other property is about double that. I don't think I could even fathom how large that was. Thus I was welcomed to North Run. A beautiful old house, built in 1902, with a cozy fire going in several rooms of the house, with bedrooms equipped with electric blankets – what more could I ask for? I was about as far from Tokyo as I could ever imagine. Headed off to bed at about 9pm as we were going to catch the sunrise on Thursday.

I received a wakeup call from Susan at 6.30am and shivering, got dressed and grabbed my camera. We jumped into a ute and headed across the property, passing by sheep and cows to a nice spot on top of a small hill. Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy so the sunrise wasn't great; we headed back quite quickly. After breakfast, I met the other members of the family – Mum, Dad, John, and 8 dogs. Yup, 8 dogs. If that sounds like a lot of animals, how about 10,000 sheep and approximately 200 cows? I couldn't believe it.

We went to pick up some bicycles from next door neighbors – a 5 minute drive – and then to another neighbor – another 5 minutes to another neighbor to pump up tires, then headed to a lane on the property for a test run. Susan, Sarah, and I had gone on a 15km bike ride in the countryside in Okayama Prefecture, Japan, so it was good fun to get back on the bikes. We had a delicious homemade vegetable soup for lunch, then we jumped back in the ute to go look for some wildlife in the area. There were dozens of kangaroos around, that would start jumping away as fast as they could (which is quite fast) as soon as they heard the ute coming, because they’re really not used to seeing people or vehicles. There were many species of birds, my favorites being the galahs, which have light pink and dark pink feathers combined with a light grey.

We also stopped by the Wanganella store, which is a combination of post office, general store, take away, restaurant, and phone center. A baby kangaroo, called a joey, had been found about a month earlier and Sonia, the owner of the store, had adopted him. Max, the baby, was brought out from his pouch and I got to feed him his kangaroo milk. Kangaroos are really fascinating animals. Their tails are so long and strong; thick, and you can feel how solid the bones in it are. Their ears are large, and their hands are tiny compared to the size of their legs and feet. The hands have 5 pronounced fingers, very similar in structure to a human. The feet only have 3 toes, and the middle one is very pronounced and long. The feet are enormous, and the legs, what we would call the thigh, is so disproportionately large. Makes sense, considering that they stand upright and are using their tails to balance and their huge lower bodies to propel themselves forward.

We headed off for a beautiful sunset view, then got home to have Mum’s traditional lamb roast. My goodness; I’ve actually in the past not been the biggest fan of lamb as it tends to have a smell about it, but this was absolutely delicious. The meat as well as the vegetables, a cauliflower melt, roast pumpkin, potato, sweet potato, onions, and carrots, were delectable – as well as the apple puffs, ice cream, and homemade custard that followed. After a few games of dominos, it was straight to bed.

Friday morning, we got up for sunrise again – it was better – and went home and made breakfast. I had my first experience of actually doing something productive on a farm, as we were mustering rams that morning. There are about 100 rams on the farm, and they needed to be gathered that morning because there was someone coming to look at them to determine which ones to sell, which ones to keep, etc etc etc. Mum came around on a 4 wheeler, Susan and I were in the ute, and Jay, Mum’s working dog, ran skillfully behind the sheep to get them in the right place. We prepared the gates beforehand and followed behind as the sheep went forward dutifully. Sheep are so interesting; there is a saying that says “don’t just follow like sheep”, and in fact, this is what sheep do. I noticed as we drove out that there were several tracks in the paddock; they were generally one single line, not parallel tracks as would be made by a vehicle; they didn't have markings of tires but the marks were made deep. Susan explained to me that they were sheep tracks, because they follow each other so the tracks are made like that. Any time one sheep would move in any direction, all the others seemed to do the same. If one sheep started peeing, the rest would. It was really something.

We gathered them in the correct place and our duties were done (admittedly I didn't do much, but it was really interesting!) We decided to head off for another bike ride and did so before lunch. After lunch, I had a quick nap before we drove back into Deniliquin to meet Sarah at the golf course. I don't know if there’s been anything else I’ve ever tried that I was as bad at. At least I was able to provide entertainment for everyone else there. The golf course was incredible in that there were plenty of birds around that I hadn’t been able to see up close yet, like kookaburras. They’re like giant kingfishers, and very very cute. Also got to see some rosellas up close which was exciting. Due to my horrible golf skills we only played 9 holes and headed back to Wanganella. Susan was treating us to her creamy mushroom steak sauce (YUM) and we had some flame grilled steaks fresh off the barbie. Doesn’t get much better than that. The Radeskis, their next door neighbors, came over for dinner so afterwards we played some board games and went off to bed.

On Saturday, we agreed to have a sleep-in and finally got out of bed at 9 – not late by my standards but on the farm, that’s half the day gone! The task of the day was to light fire to some dead boxthorns, a pest that was introduced from South Africa to provide hedging. Australia is well known for its disastrous introduced species, from the cane toad, rabbit, fox, to several plant species, such as the box thorn. It’s a very prickly plant that spreads rapidly and is a good natural barrier – in Africa it’s used to keep lions out of certain areas. In Australia, it’s become a pain for farmers who don’t want it there and hurts the livestock. So, pyromaniacs gathered to light some on fire, and we set up a little camp type fire along the bank of the river and cooked some steak and “burdigan duck”, basically small pieces of leftover roast lamb mixed in a batter of flour, onion, parsley, milk, salt, and garlic – fritters that are tasty but probably horrible for you! We hit around some golf balls and watched as Maggie, the house dog, caught the rabbits that were running out of the burning boxthorns, and whiled away the afternoon.

After a quick bike ride, Susan and I went back out in the ute to try and find some emus. This bird, which is apparently something that can be seen everywhere in the area quite normally, had not shown itself at all since my arrival. One last look, and after about 40 minutes going around in the ute to different paddocks, we were rewarded. 2 large emus were racing away as fast as they could. They are enormous birds, that look like ostriches sort of – they have very interesting feathers, that seem to bounce up and down as they run run run – they can go over 60km/hr. We couldn't get too close but I was happy just to have seen them!

More kangaroos around, some of which we got quite close to. In the evening we headed back into Deni and cooked lamb chops with Sarah and spent the night there, with the AFL game on TV. I was glad to have experienced this quintessential glimpse of Australian rural life, miles away from the hustle and bustle of the larger Australian cities or the touristed spots I’d seen thus far.

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